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Thanksgiving week weather, travel in Washington: What you need to know

Nov 20, 2023, 9:40 AM | Updated: 3:58 pm

Image: A crowd of travelers stand in line at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday, Nov. 2...

A crowd of travelers stand in line at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. (Photo: Jason Rantz, KTTH 770 AM)

(Photo: Jason Rantz, KTTH 770 AM)

The week of Thanksgiving is here, and across the nation, over 55 million Americans are anticipated to travel for Thanksgiving, the third largest travel volume on record according to the AAA travel forecast. Only 2019 and 2005 had a higher number of this holiday’s traveling levels.

Close to 90% will travel by car, with the remainder flying or taking an Amtrak train. Here is what you need to know before you go.

More from Ted Buehner: How to prepare now that King Tide season is back

Weather

In Western Washington, no significant or impactful weather is anticipated through the holiday weekend. The first half of this week is expected to involve clouds and a threat of light rain at times. Then, on Thanksgiving Day and through the weekend, the sun is forecast to show itself at times with dry weather, ideal for holiday shoppers. Temperatures will be seasonal for the latter part of November, with highs mainly in the mid and upper 40s and lows ranging from the 30s to lower 40s.

For those with plans across the Cascades, Tuesday and Wednesday will have a threat of rain with a snow level of at least 4,000 feet. From Thanksgiving Day to next Monday, dry weather with freezing levels well above the passes is anticipated as higher pressure aloft will be the driving weather factors. Dry weather is expected east of the Cascades through the holiday weekend, though the usual area of low clouds and fog is likely in lower elevations.

Sorry skiers, there is not enough snow to open Cascade resorts for the holiday weekend.

For those flying elsewhere in the country, the eastern seaboard will be impacted by weather Tuesday and Wednesday. Thanksgiving Day and Saturday look rather tranquil across the nation. On Sunday and Monday, though, a nor’easter is expected to adversely impact the Northeast with rain, snow and wind.

Air travel

Speaking of flying, authorities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) anticipate Wednesday, Sunday and Monday will be the busiest travel days during Thanksgiving weekend. On Wednesday, they expect about 156,000 travelers departing, arriving, and connecting. The return days of Sunday and Monday are expected to involve 158,000 and 148,000 travelers respectively.

They note that more than one-third of daily passenger volumes arrive at the airport before 9 a.m., creating long lines approaching their arrival doors and at TSA security checkpoints. As always, arrive early. Other peak times also include between 2 and 5 p.m., and again the evening rush between 9 and 11 p.m.

TSA security checkpoints will be busiest from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and again from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. The airport has a new SEA Spot Saver TSA screening reservation program that does not involve any membership. You can schedule your appointment in advance on-line for security screening, resulting in reduced wait times. SEA Spot Saver is used from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. at TSA Checkpoints 2 and 5 and from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Checkpoint 3 for all airline passengers.

Parking and dropoffs/pickups of passengers will also be challenging at the airport. To help avoid the crowds at the curb, travelers can use Sound Transit Light Rail to reach the airport in a cost-effective and timely manner.

Snohomish County’s Paine Field is a different story. The passenger terminal will be busier than normal but have far less congestion than that at Sea-Tac Airport. Alaska Airlines currently has 10 daily departures from Paine Field, including their newest route to Honolulu. Kenmore Air also has flights to and from the San Juan Islands.

Driving

Most holiday weekend travelers will be on the road. If you wish to avoid delays and frustration in traffic, plan to travel before or after the following peak times based on the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Thanksgiving weekend travel charts compiled over years of traffic data.

Going over Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90, heading east will be, by far, the busiest on Wednesday; peaking between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Returning from Eastern Washington is expected to be quite busy on both Saturday and Sunday, peaking again from 11 a.m. through 6 p.m.

For those heading east over Stevens Pass, the heaviest travel days eastbound will be Friday and Saturday. Wednesday and Thanksgiving Day itself will see lighter traffic volumes. Returning westbound across Stevens Pass will see the heaviest travel days to be on Saturday and Sunday, peaking in both directions from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

If you are driving toward Portland, Oregon, Wednesday is definitely set to be the busiest day, with stop-and-go traffic at times expected from as early as 9 a.m. and continuing through 7 p.m. Each day though through the holiday weekend should also be quite busy. The return trip finds the heaviest traffic volumes on Saturday and Sunday from midday until close to 7 p.m.

There are no travel charts heading north toward Bellingham, but expect similar higher traffic volumes to those heading toward Portland during the holiday weekend.

Ferries

If you plan to use the ferry system, keep in mind that Washington State Ferries (WSF) continues to suffer fewer available vessels and occasional staffing shortages. For instance, the Edmonds/Kingston crossing has only vessel service with a more limited schedule. Other routes may also need to make some scheduling adjustments.

Ferry authorities note the busiest sailings for vehicles will likely be westbound (or to an island) Wednesday and Thursday, then eastbound (or off the island) Friday and Saturday.

Be sure to check the ferry schedule on the WSF website or app for the latest available information, and plan for delays in ferry terminal waits. To reduce waiting, riders may consider taking an early morning or late-night sailing or by using transit to walk or bike onto the ferry if possible.

Gas prices

At the gas pump, prices have dropped quite a bit in the last few months, the lowest since the pandemic for the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday. According to AAA travel, average prices across the state have dropped over 40 cents in just the past month. Outside of the Seattle and Spokane areas, a large number of stations are offering regular gas at under $4 per gallon.

Amtrak trains

Amtrak rail service will also be busy but have enough capacity. Amtrak says the busiest travel days are Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Wherever you travel this holiday weekend, plan ahead to help avoid stress, travel safely, and enjoy your holiday weekend with family and friends.

Ted Buehner is the KIRO Newsradio meteorologist. You can read more of Ted’s stories here and follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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